Seanad debates

Monday, 8 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Institutes of Technology

10:30 am

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to the House and thank him for taking this Commencement matter in person. I wish to acknowledge the interest and determination of the Minister in ensuring that Waterford and the south-east region finally achieve the long-held ambition to have a university of international standing.

I wish to put some statistics on the record of the House to assist me in making my case. According to the latest data available from the Higher Education Authority, Waterford Institute of Technology has 6,634 full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students, while Institute of Technology Carlow has 4,454. The budgets and full-time staff at WIT are essentially double that of IT Carlow owing to the relative size of both institutes. WIT is part of six Science Foundation Ireland networks and recent EU Commission data shows that WIT has attracted more research funding from the EU in the area of information and communications technology than all other institutes of technology combined, and more than many Irish universities under Horizon 2020.

I mention these statistics not in any way to discredit the fantastic work that the staff at IT Carlow do but to emphasise that the headquarters of the new university should be located in the area that has the critical mass of full-time students and, more important, in one of the four areas which the national planning framework has identified for targeted ambitious growth of at least 50% out to 2040.In fact, the national planning framework specifically says that failure to address the economic underperformance of the south east and accelerated growth of Waterford city would have negative consequences that would further add to growth pressures within the Dublin region.

As the Minister knows from the several meetings we have had in recent weeks, there has been a lot of rumour and speculation circulating regarding the headquarters issue, the source and purpose of which I am unsure of. However, the assertion by some that the headquarters for the new TU will be in Kilkenny has been unhelpful to the process, and I ask the Minister to clarify that this will not be the case. I ask for this clarity not as a parochial request. This is a regional issue and anyone who looks at my record since my time as chairman of the regional authority in 2010 will see that I have always been a regional advocate and I firmly believe that any investment in the region greatly adds to our attractiveness and our offer. That option needs to be taken off the table because it has caused a great deal of anxiety among staff at WIT and I am acutely aware, as the Minister will be also, that they will be voting on a revised memorandum of understanding soon.

It is important to state that the vast majority of Oireachtas Members in the south east have the desire and ambition to deliver a multi-campus university of international standing in our region, and I know the Minister is also firmly committed to that goal. However, I am sure he will also agree that to get there and to grow student numbers, not just in Waterford but across the region, it will require significant capital investment. As the Minister knows, I have been engaged with stakeholders over recent months regarding the very exciting prospect of an expanded Waterford campus on the Cork Road. I would like some assurances from him regarding the commitment of his Department to the purchase and development of this site and its inclusion in the capital plan as well as his willingness to use innovative solutions to see work carried out in the short term.

Regarding the appointment process for the new president, chairperson and governing body of the proposed new university, I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline at what point this new board will come into play, should the application proceed as planned, and what process will be used to determine the individuals who will sit on the governing body and who will appoint same.

I again thank the Minister for his attendance here this morning. I would appreciate clarifications and reassurance from him on this very important issue for Waterford and the south east.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising these matters with me and indeed for doing so consistently over recent weeks and months. Certainly, a week has not gone by when we have not engaged on this at least two or three times and I thank him for his commitment. We have a shared desire to rectify a wrong whereby the south east is the only region in our country not to have a university. The lack of that university presence has had real impact on foreign direct investment and the ability to access in the region every part of the national framework of qualifications. I join the Senator in praising Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow. The figures relating to WIT which he put on the record speak for themselves. It is an incredible institution and one I am very proud of. While we are moving to a new era and it is one of excitement, we do that out of respect for and a desire to build on the success of WIT.

The establishment of a technological university for the south east is an urgent priority of the programme for Government. Indeed, it is the only technological university named in the programme for Government, such is the importance we attach to it. It will address the significant and glaring gap in the south-east region which I referred to. I really believe a technological university will bring considerable opportunities to Waterford city and county and to the entire south east to increase foreign direct investment, capital investment, research funding and international recognition. Even more than that, it can be a catalyst for regeneration, innovation and regional development.

I was somewhat bemused to see people mocking my geography recently when I talked about how it would be brilliant if students from counties Wicklow, Laois or others, instead of having always to look to Dublin, could decide to go to Waterford and spend their euro there, invest there and set up a family there. This is what we want for Waterford and the south east. We need to get rid of the silly mentality that all roads must lead to Dublin, which is exactly what I was trying to talk about, though some people decided purposely to misunderstand.

Students, staff, enterprise and the wider community are going to be able, for the very first time, to avail of the opportunity provided by a university within their own region.A lot of progress has been made by the technological university for the south east, TUSE, consortium of Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow. My understanding is that the consortium aims to submit an application for technological university, TU, designation under the prescribed legislation by 28 April, which is soon. It is important to appreciate that we cannot count our chickens before they have hatched because the application will have to be evaluated by an independent international panel with a view to recommending whether to confer technological university status. Should that application lead to TU designation, there is a prescribed process under section 55 of the Technological Universities Act 2018 for the establishment of its first governing body, about which the Senator asked me. In addition to a TU president, this body comprises a chairperson, two external members and one member appointed by the relevant education and training boards in accordance with their own processes. Further appointments will be made within six months, following elections and an additional appointment process for external members.

I will turn to recent speculation about the location of a headquarters for the new TU. I stress that it is nothing more than idle speculation. The factual position is that no decision has been made on a headquarters and anyone stating otherwise or claiming it will be in one location is doing so baselessly. This speculation is uninformed and lacks a proper understanding of how a regional technological university with a strong multi-campus footprint will operate. The TU will have a distributed leadership led by the incoming president. There will be strong, hands-on and practical leadership. Universities are places of engagement between students, researchers, staff, enterprise and the wider community. Commentary regarding Kilkenny in recent weeks is misleading. I am not aware of any such plans for a headquarters in Kilkenny. Such conjecture, at this critical stage in the development process or, indeed, at any stage, is divisive and counterproductive. TUs can only come into being in the first place and prosper thereafter if all parties come together and work together. At this critical time, our concentration must be on getting the application in and over the line.

I will also speak about capital investment. The Senator has talked to me about a site on the Cork road. I want to see the footprint in Waterford expanded and capital will be forthcoming to facilitate that. Normal business plans and appraisal processes need to be gone through. This is an opportunity to significantly expand the footprint in Waterford. That will include more students and investment, and a wider availability of courses. That is what I want to see for Waterford and the new technological university for the south east.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and appreciate his comments about wanting to expand the footprint of the campus in Waterford. That is an important commitment that he has put on the record of the House. I look forward to engaging further with him on that process.

The Minister mentioned distributed leadership in the context of the headquarters and the new university, which is important. While I appreciate that, he will appreciate that there is considerable anxiety in Waterford about this issue. It would be helpful if he could at least say that the only logical location for a headquarters of the new university will be an area that has students. I ask the Minister to take that on board and perhaps he can clarify the matter in his comments.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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What the Senator has suggested sounds entirely logical to me. This decision, obviously, will be made by the TU governing authority but as I have said clearly, the speculation around Kilkenny is baseless and idle. It is misinformed, unhelpful and potentially divisive at a crucial moment for this project.

There have been many false dawns for this university in the south east. I am refusing to allow us to be sidetracked. The first part of the process has to be to get the application in, appoint the independent panel and get it over the line, and then have a technological university for the south east that will open its doors on 1 January next year. I have been clear about the speculation over a headquarters in Kilkenny.

There is absolutely no question about the centrality of Waterford to this undertaking. The project would not be possible without the centrality of Waterford. Equally, it would not be possible to do it alone. We need to work together and IT Carlow is playing a major role in this, as is all of the south east. It is my clear intention to use the establishment of this university to expand the imprint of higher education in Waterford. The Taoiseach also said that in the Dáil last week. We are going to make Waterford bigger and better for higher education. I will keep in touch with the Senator on this matter.